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© Max Lubin

interviews

RISE | Part One

by Max Lubin
May 7, 2019

This interview with Max Lubin, the co-founder of RISE, a student advocacy organization working on free college in California, was conducted and condensed by frank news.

AB19 Press Conference

Max: I started working in advocacy organizing a little over 10 years ago when I was still a high school student. Barack Obama started running for president and I showed up at an event for people who were interested in supporting him. This was some point in 2007 and the campaign at that stage was just about recruiting people to come share your stories, share what inspired you about then Senator Obama, and why you want to get involved.

Through that I learned how to organize, how to build a volunteer team, how to get involved in a campaign and I spent the next year or so working to elect Barack Obama as president. I graduated, threw everything in my car, moved down to Florida, I worked in Palm Beach County organizing volunteers and voters, worked on a couple other local and state elections in different parts of the country, and then I moved to New York to help Mayor Bloomberg build what is now Everytown for Gun Safety. I was there for almost a year and then moved back to D.C. to join Obamaworld working in the Education Department.

After spending a couple years working in education policy, it was really striking to me that there were no higher education advocacy groups focused on college affordability.

If you care about women's reproductive rights you can go to Planned Parenthood. If you care about civil rights you can go work at the ACLU. But if you care about college affordability there's not really a home group you could go to. There's amazing research and policy groups, but in terms of grassroots organizing and advocacy, there's not really a home for that work.

In September of 2017 we officially launched RISE. The next month we got about 6000 signatures from Californians asking Jerry Brown to sign one year of free community college into law. A couple months after that we helped stop the 2018 university tuition hikes in California.

frank: How did you choose which states to focus on?

We started in California because California has a progressive tradition. We have democratic super majorities, we have very liberal voters in California, but California legislators have cut billions of dollars from higher education funding. In the late seventies, higher education was about 18% of the state budget. Today it's under 11.5% to 12%.

In real dollars in terms of the general fund, that's almost 9 billion dollars in funding that's been cut from the higher ed budget.

We were saying that if these so called progressive legislators have been cutting funding for four decades, let's see if we can bring students to advocate in an environment where we can hold people accountable to their values.

In 2018 we supported the student Get Out the Vote efforts in a handful of states; Arizona, Florida, Ohio, Nebraska, and looking at those states we wanted to help elect representatives that would advocate for free college at the state level, the governor's office, state legislature, we did a little bit of federal work but principally focused on states. When we think about expansion we look at an opportunity to really move the needle.

We look at, is there an opportunity where student advocacy can really make a difference? Do we have relationships with student advocacy groups and student organizations in that state, and do we feel like we have the capacity and bandwidth to make a difference there?

What does free college mean? Do you mean tuition? Housing? Food? All of it?

Our policy platform is run on any student being able to attend college – community college, or a four year university, without paying tuition or fees. With enough financial aid to have all their basic needs, like food and housing met, and to graduate on time with enough support to limit, if not eliminate, their student loan debt.

Our avenue to get there is principally through advocacy at the state level, since most higher education budgets are set by the state. It's about on-going sustainable investment so that colleges and universities can offer a great educational experience, that's subsidized by the public instead of by student's tuition.

In the midst of a crowded democratic primary, what do you want candidates to be talking about in terms of free college?

Without going into specific candidates or specific plans because I think more are still forthcoming – not every candidate in this race is on the same page. The Elizabeth Warren plan is a bold and progressive plan that is multiple billions of dollars and has a funding mechanism. Other candidates are saying just free community college, or in some cases, not even.

Even though free college has become a political rally cry, it's really important to look at the fine points of each plan before we make an assessment about whether that's going to be good for students or not.

Most of the work you do is at the State level. How much of this falls to the Federal level?

The US Department of Education, where I used to work, operates what's functionally one of the top 10 largest banks in the United States through their management of student loans.

To act like the Federal Government doesn't have a role or doesn't have a powerful mechanism to make this a reality just isn't the case. Even though most of the funding does come from the state level where states are the principal players in this space.

In terms of priorities you would look at a dramatic expansion of Pell Grants, you'd look at different forms of student loan forgiveness. You'd look at incentive for states to maintain, if not increase their investments in higher education. It's a provision in the K-12 universe we refer to as supplement not supplant. There's a whole variety of things that can happen at the federal level. It's more about the political will to get something done. College students just don't have the kinds of lobbyists and advocates that the other groups do. They're going to state legislators and congress up against groups spending millions, in some cases tens of millions of dollars a year on lobbying and advocacy.

They're more often than not losing out to these other items. What's striking to me about free college in the context of the presidential debates, is its usually couched as a liberal or progressive dream item alongside the Green New Deal and alongside some form of universal healthcare. But the fact of the matter is its far more affordable, it's something that would be relatively easy to do compared to the first two items. That would be about going back to a tradition of free or nearly free higher education that most states have had for quite some time.

California didn't have a tuition system like most of the public colleges and universities until the late seventies or early eighties.

The Arizona constitution says that the colleges and universities in that state should be as free as possible.

CUNY and SUNY in New York were free for probably 100 years. If you look at the fee schedule for the University of Michigan, it's not until the last few decades that you see this change.

What happened?

What happened is a number of states have followed California in terms of making these big cuts to higher education funding.

When there's a recession or some sort of state budget crisis, unlike roads, health care, or a number of the other big state budget items, you can cut back funding for students and raise tuition on out of state students in particular, to fund the public colleges and universities. We've gone from this most free or nearly free model of higher education, where we treat college like a public good, to something that costs a lot of money. The notion is that a very expensive tuition system will redirect that funding to low income students so that they can participate. So that's egalitarian.

But in practice, two things happen. One, the sticker price of college, which is the price you would pay before any financial aid, discourages students of color and students from low income backgrounds from pursuing college at all. The second thing that happens is because financial aid is typically a patchwork of private and public funding, local, state and federal funding, that if something doesn't happen, if one of those pieces doesn't come together for some reason – because a financial aid officer's overwhelmed, because there's a glitch in FAFSA, because the timing is just late – then that student doesn't get the financial aid and then they're taking out student loan debt to compensate.

In California, the average student loan debt for our graduates is around $23,000, which doesn't seem like a lot to someone who is maybe in their forties earning six figures. They think, "Okay, you'll pay that off in no time." But for a family who's coming from nothing, who's trying to make every dollar work for their family, $23,000 is enough to say, why should I go to college just to be in debt afterwards?

It's really hard to change the culture around college going, and the mindset around college going as an investment. If for the best case scenario, graduating from a four year university, you're going to be left with this amount of debt on average.

Right, let alone grad school...

Let alone any of those other. A lot of this debate around, well free tuition isn't the best investment of our money, we should make these more targeted investments in subgroups or other things. We say that ultimately we have to not put students in a position where they need to choose between free college and the financial aid they need to graduate. We need to do both things. We need to reduce tuition and fees at our colleges and universities. We need to make more aid available, and we need to walk and chew gum, instead of as advocates saying, "We have to pick these small pieces", because clearly that approach from an advocacy perspective has not been working.

Is it really as simple as when money issues hit a state, education is the first thing to go? Or is it more intentional than that?

It's both. I think there are a lot of legislators who in those tough moments, really wrestled with the morals and ethics of cutting funding for colleges and universities, and a number of other things that have to get cut during a recession or a budget crisis.

I don't want to say all legislators are bad, grumpy people. What you saw in California and then a number of other states in the late 70's and early 80's, was this movement driven by then President Nixon, Governor Reagan and then President Reagan, that was largely a state level anti-tax revolt. So California had Prop 13, is the number of other tax initiatives, grant and tax initiatives in other states that basically capped the state's ability to raise revenue around certain items in particular.

In California, property taxes and commercial real estate taxes are capped at a certain percentage, which means that people are paying today, several decades later, a lot less than they would in state funding that would go to schools, universities, et cetera. You have a combination of this more politically motivated effort because they saw this sort of free college system as a political threat. And the realities of state budget making in a constrained environment, combined with broader social forces that we have.

Part of the issue we're experiencing right now is not just that we have defunded colleges and universities and financial aid, it's that living in cities is exorbitantly expensive.

When you attack on both ends where students have less money for their education, and it's more expensive to live, you end up creating a crisis around higher education and also around student's basic needs.

Very complex.

It is. It's a very wonky topic.

So many of our perceptions around college and college affordability are driven by this individualistic mindset. By this idea of a college degree is something I need to get a better job later on. Therefore I'm going to think about the cost and do whatever I need to do to afford it. That's how we justify students working three jobs. That's how justify $50,000 in student loan debt. Part of what the scholarship on this looks at is this idea from the past around looking at higher education as a public good, as an investment, as part of our social fabric. We don't do that anymore.

That's not very American dream.

Right, right. People talk about college dropouts. Is there a crisis of college dropouts in the country? About 40% of students aren't completing college. It might be closer to half in some states. In community colleges it's even higher. But people talk about college dropouts and they think Bill Gates. They think Steve Jobs. The reality for most college dropouts, is they get stuck with loans that they can't pay off because they can't get a good job, not that they invent Apple. But because we have this individualistic mindset about education, it's a real anchor for our ability to move this field forward.

How do you change it?

We're trying.

How do I try?

I would say in the public university system we have to stop looking at how to make elite public universities more. We can't define elite as being the most expensive tuition, the most amenities, the most students from out of state.

It's nice if UCLA is in the top 10, but if nobody who lives in LA can get into UCLA, then it undermines the mission of the university as a public university.

I would say principally, I don't think that the obligation is on us as lay people. To think about this issue and make talking about public education as a collective good part of our daily practice – I don't think that's in and of itself going to solve the problem.We need to see is a much bigger advocacy infrastructure where students being the leaders of higher education advocacy groups in multiple states is the norm.

That's a real spirit of grassroots organizing that's missing from higher education. We have to build stronger relationships between students and administrators who are university leaders. In the past that's been an acrimonious relationship because trustees or regions will raise tuition. Students will protest the trustees or regents for doing that instead of them working together at the state level to get more money and avert a a tuition hike, which is what we did in California last year.

Part of that is about seeing the intrinsic value in students as leaders. 

Are you optimistic about your work?

I am. It's hard to feel hopeful these days about anything that has to do with our political system or public policy but there's a couple things that make me feel hopeful. One is when you start an advocacy organization you don't expect to win. You expect to lose. A lot. That's principally what happens in advocacy. You fight for the priorities you care about and you come up short. The next year you try again and you just make progress one day at a time.

For me, coming from a situation where we've already had a number of advocacy wins under our belt in less than two years as an organization, shows me, not that I'm an incredible leader or RISE is an incredible organization, it shows me that when we really accomplish our mission, which is putting students front and center in policy conversations, that we really change those conversations in a clear way.

The second thing, and the thing that really keeps me going in this work, is just the students themselves. They are by far the best advocates and organizers I've ever worked with including lots of professional campaigners with fancy degrees. They are overcoming extraordinary things.